This was pretzel dancing – a hybrid of square dancing, blue grass jive and the haphazard movements that Elaine’s character creates on Seinfeld. But as my partner’s experienced fingertips wove me in, out and around his arms with such eloquent grace, I felt like Ginger Rogers, albeit in cowboy boots. These Cajun folk in Houma, southern Louisiana, know a thing of two about dancing up a good time.
Sadly, though, the Cajuns are dancing on land that is sinking faster than the Titanic. New Orleans may take the spotlight, but there are many coastal towns, like Houma, where entire ways of life are dissolving into the water.
Nowhere is this better seen than in Terrebonne Parish, some 60 miles southwest of New Orleans, and the second largest county in Louisiana. Lying just 12 feet above sea level, it comprises more than 65 percent of wetlands for many endangered species, or is covered by open water.
Settled largely by exiled French colonists (the Acadians from Nova Scotia, and French migrants from along the Mississippi, they named the area Terre Bonne meaning ‘good earth’ because of its abundant wildlife, seafood and fertile land.
Natural bounty also earned neighboring LaFourche Parish its name, meaning ‘the fork’. The French, however, shouldn’t get all the credit for the Cajun culture because in truth, it embodies the intermingling of many nationalities. Each retained some of their native heritage, yet inspired a shared existence that is evidenced as much in the diversity of faces of the local people, as in the local turn of phrase, dialect, Bayou blues music, dance and spicy cuisine.
For generations, these settlers lived harmoniously with their surrounds, building houses and transit systems around the river’s ebb, flow and seasonal flooding.
All that changed in the 1920s when state forefathers began to re-engineer the flow of the Mississippi river for irrigation, navigation and flood control. Without the river’s natural land-building silts, thriving estuaries became stagnant backwaters, and coastal communities were left vulnerable to the encroaching waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Since the levee diversions, coastal land loss has averaged 30 square miles a year; that’s nearly a football field every 30 minutes.
Even more contentious are the region’s energy reserves. Since the early 1930s Terrebonne Parish has been responsible for almost a quarter of America’s oil and gas production. As land based operations, revenues benefited Houma and Terrebonne, but as invading waters continue to submerge wells and gas lines, these same resources morph into State-owned ‘offshore’ locales and as a consequence, revenues go to the State of Louisiana. For a parish striving to keep itself above water, ownership is seen as survival whether it’s to fund coastal restoration through barrier islands, dredging and redistributing sediment or creating new deltaic plains. And as the ownership debate drags on, time for action is running short. Every year, a little bit more of the community’s infrastructure dissolves, trees disappear, and marshes float away and die.
Economics aside, Terrebonne’s hospitality and cultural authenticity is still as palpable as ever. This Cajun community still dances to its own tempo from its distinctive cuisine, close-knit families, and lilting patois, to its colorful festivals (Houma’s Mardis Gras is second only to New Orleans) and foot-stomping music, all of which comes together on a Friday night at the Jolly Inn Dance Hall in Houma.
Here, the old traditions of Southeast Louisiana hold strong, and they’re deliciously contagious. Everyone is greeted with Mon Che’re (Cajun for ‘dear’) with a cacophony of Gumbo Ya Ya – a Cajun term for everyone talking at once. Within minutes, you are swept into the joyful melee of Cajun music, dancing and food – known locally as a Fais Do-Do. And between shuffling steps and pretzel turns, plates of jambalaya, gumbo and étouffee are dished out with generosity. It’s a style of hospitality that is uniquely Cajun and within these four walls at least, it’s a cultural phenomenon as proud and vibrant as it has always been. But for how long, remains to be seen.